The Challenge of Embarking on a PhD at Fifty

wc5Embarking on a PhD in your 50s is a challenging process, not just because re-entering academia after several decades away from it is scary but also because life is very different in your 50s compared to your 20s. For me, at the beginning, the challenge was mostly about confidence, could I really do this now, at my age? Would I have the staying power, the ability to understand all that theory and the motivation to stick with it over several years? When I set out on this journey back in 2015, I couldn’t have anticipated just how challenging it would be, for such different reasons than I initially thought.

Life, family and health interventions have made mine a longer journey than anticipated as my initial plan was to finish last year. I’ve now had over 12 months of interruption across the last couple of years, with 2 major surgeries and associated illness and recovery times (I’d never even been in hospital before this).

During my fieldwork, which was time limited as I was studying activity during an election period, I was actually quite ill but had to carry on regardless. I tried hard to organise interviews, attend meetings, discussions with individuals and other observations so they were spread out and gave me time to recover, but this was not always possible, I naturally had to fit in with the timetable of others. As we got closer to the election this was particularly the case, as meetings, discussions, hustings, campaign launches, and follow up interviews all had to be attended and arranged. There were days when having done one interview I was also due to attend another meeting but just couldn’t manage it, so had to cancel. I missed out on observing and attending some discussions because it just wasn’t possible. Having said that, I am still more than pleased with the amount of access I did get to individuals, meetings and discussions and the number of interviews I was able to carry out. If I’d been well enough though I would have done more (but maybe every researcher thinks there’s more that could be done).

After the fieldwork and just as I began the analysis and initial writing up stages I underwent major surgery and had a total of 7 months off from my studies because of illness beforehand and recovery afterwards. This was a major interruption at just the wrong time, just as I was closest to all the information and my own research, I had to take a break. In the end it was worth it, as my health was much improved afterwards and I was able to concentrate on my research once more. I got back into the analysis, additional reading, and writing first drafts of the main analysis and discussion sections. I even got to the point of revisions to some of the earlier chapters and had finished writing most of the remaining chapters before I had to take another break for another operation.

I am currently resting up after knee surgery and hoping to get back to full time writing over the next few weeks. Each time I’ve had to take time out I’ve found it really hard to get back into the subject matter and to immerse myself in the detail again. Whilst it does provide an opportunity to step back, I find it difficult to re-establish my engagement with my research, particularly at the stage I am at now, which is the final writing stage. An enforced absence of a couple of months has been both liberating and frustrating. Liberating because it does provide that space you sometimes need when you are too close to what you are writing and need to step back from it all to see a clearer picture. Frustrating because I was so close to finishing when the NHS provided a quicker date for my surgery than originally anticipated (which I am grateful for), so I had to stop before I wanted to, before I’d got to the end.

But now it’s time to get back to it, to get on with the writing. I’m at the stage now where I’m mostly revising chapters rather than writing from scratch, and hopefully I am now only a few months off completion. I’m re-reading what I have written with a fresh look, checking on the latest articles in my field and tightening up some of my arguments. My challenge now is to ensure the ‘golden thread’ goes right through my writing, from beginning to end, so the story is clear and my engagement with both the theory and my original research is inextricably linked throughout.

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Who influences what and how? A study of agenda setting and policy prioritisation during the Bristol Mayoral Election.

wordcloudJuly

I thought it was about time I wrote another blog, and this time it’s a quick summary of what my PhD research is all about. I’ve written blogs before about my PhD Journey, but have shied away from too much detail on what my research actually covers. So time to give it a go, in a few hundred words, explaining the theoretical framework and the questions I am attempting to address!

My PhD research is about housing policy, agenda setting and how policy priorities are defined at election time. The impetus for this study comes from an interest in why some issues are rarely discussed and why some issues grab policy makers attention whilst others do not. It stems from a desire to develop a better understanding of the role local elections and new models of local governance have on framing policy agendas. It also comes from an interest in agenda setting theory, particularly Kingdon’s multiple streams framework (MSF), and how that can be applied at a local level in the UK.

Kingdon’s MSF has traditionally been used to explore agenda setting at a national level, initially in the US, and more recently across a range of countries. Most of the research has been qualitative, using interviewing and documentary evidence as the main form of data collection. Very little research has been carried out at a local level in the UK and none of that has specifically looked at agenda setting as it happens during an election period or within the new model of local governance where there is a directly elected mayor.

Using Kingdon’s MSF as a starting point enables my research to consider the relevance of the framework to agenda setting activity during a local election for a directly elected mayor in Bristol. My research is based on a live study of that activity as it took place, pre and post election. It explores the relevance of the idea of ‘windows of opportunity’ and the role of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ throughout this process, highlighting where the MSF provides a useful framework for understanding as well as where the gaps might be. It is not, however, a study that seeks to test a theory or hypothesis. Rather, it seeks to use the Framework to help understand what is happening and to construct a story of events as it is seen by the people at the centre of the action. The approach adopted seeks to use the idea of constructing and interpreting actors own constructions of what they are up to through an analysis of their beliefs and everyday practices. It focuses on a local case study of Bristol using a live ‘ethnographic’ approach to examine how, if and why housing policy is prioritised and in whose interest. It does this through a detailed exploration of the approach, beliefs, reactions and perceptions of local political decision makers and the individuals, groups and networks trying to influence them.

My research seeks to understand the way in which different actors perceive and make sense of the world and aims to understand how individual actors influence a specific policy agenda during an election. The intention is not to generalise about the findings in empirical terms but to use the case study to provide input to the theoretical development of policy agenda setting and policy prioritisation during elections.

My research aims to provide an insight into the world of policy prioritisation during the Bristol Mayoral election in May 2016. It uses Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework (MSF) as a starting point for discussion on agenda setting before, during and immediately after the election to identify who influences what and how. The story that emerges details the influencers, their tactics, what works and what doesn’t, and at the end of it all, after the election, what makes it onto the policy agenda of the new mayor. The story is about a local policy prioritisation process, at a moment in time, where action and change is prompted by the Mayoral election.

The story of how things get onto the agenda and into political manifestos at election time is not a simple story. It is built around a myriad of different influences that are formal and informal, covert and overt, direct and indirect. It is difficult to piece these together in a timeline or coherent and logical manner, as the process is anything but logical. It seems to be an ad hoc process involving different people and organisations at different times and one that in the end appears to come down to personalities and individual preferences and beliefs, as much as it does evidence, identified need and viability.

The justification for the research is constructed around three basic premises. Firstly, that there is currently a national housing crisis, an issue accepted and acknowledged by many, with constant, ad hoc policy change occurring at national, sub national and local level. Nationally the talk is frequently focused on the supply of housing, with different political parties competing to set the highest target for new build. The wider approach to housing policy varies from supporting people to buy their own home and reducing the unnecessary restrictions of the planning system, to encouraging landowners and property developers to release more land for housing and supporting buy-to-let landlords. The ability to approach the problem comprehensively seems to get lost in a myriad of politics, ‘big ideas’ and short-term thinking. In Bristol the crisis is played out in terms of both the overall supply and affordability of housing. Outside of London and the South East, Bristol and the West of England is one of the most expensive places to live in the UK.

The second basic premise is that Bristol provides an interesting case study for research. It was the only city to vote yes to having a directly elected mayor, with an Independent Mayor (George Ferguson) elected in November 2012. The local circumstances that led to this vote were commonly quoted as being about poor and unstable leadership, constant changes of leadership and lack of visibility in terms of leadership. There has also been considerable recent debate about devolution and the role of city regions, with Bristol featuring as one of the areas that has been given increased powers and resources from central government in exchange for adopting a combined authority and metro-mayor. My research focuses on the Mayoral Election in 2016, where the first re-election of a directly elected mayor will take place alongside a full council election (for the first time in nearly 20 years). This was therefore quite a significant local election, coming just a year after the general election, and potentially a period of significant change for the city.

Thirdly, an understanding of how issues get onto, and move up and down, the policy agenda during a period of political change at a local level is an area of research that has not received particularly extensive attention over the years. The focus of much agenda setting research is either carried out at a national level or is historically focused, looking back at how a decision was taken or a policy change generated over a longer time period. My research looks at local policy prioritisation as it happened, at a moment in time and seeks to understand why it is happening, who or what is influencing the process and how those under influence respond and react. It focuses on an election period where there is likely to be a concentration of political activity, over a short period of time, when influence, engagement and responsiveness are likely to be greater than at most other times.

The two main questions this research seeks to address are as follows:

  1. How do issues get onto the policy agenda during an election campaign?
  • Who is responsible for putting issues on the policy and political agenda during an election?
  • What keeps those issues there or raises them up/down that agenda?
  1. How do the political candidates respond and react to different influences before, during and after an election campaign?
  • Who is trying to influence the candidates during the election process?
  • What tactics do different local actors use to get attention?
  • Who do the candidates listen to and why?

I’ll return to write another post soon about some of the findings, that begin to put some detailed responses to the questions outlined above.

Getting the story right – the final phase of my PhD!

wordcloudJulyI’m now entering the final phase of my PhD! Now that sounds vaguely ridiculous as it only seems like yesterday that I started. But I am now at the point of finishing off my fieldwork and beginning that rather daunting bit that means I have to try and make sense of it all. For me it still feels like I don’t know much, like there is so much reading still to do and so much data to make sense of, that it’ll take years to get to that end point of the completed thesis.

This middle stage, the second year, has been fun, manic, challenging, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. It’s involved talking to and interviewing people I have never met before, as well as many I know well. It’s involved taking up other people’s time, often at times that are most busy for them. It’s also involved a significant degree of personal learning, confidence, engagement, listening and energy. There were times when I have felt stretched beyond what I could cope with, completely out of my comfort zone, bombarded with information and exhausted from long days and late evenings full of meetings, interviews and debates. There have also been times when I’ve felt extremely grateful for how cooperative people have been, energised by what I have heard, motivated by discussion and a fair amount of empathy for the people who have shared their challenges with me.

There have also been times when I’ve wondered whether or not the questions I am asking are the right ones, whether the information I am gathering is actually what I need. In fact there have been many times when I have wondered about that and indeed still do – only time will tell.

I guess I’ve reached that stage now where all of those questions and self doubt begin to take centre stage, where a year to analyse data and write up just doesn’t seem long enough. For me I know what I need at this stage, I need to be able to see the story that I’m trying to tell, the story that takes the reader through my research. At the moment I’m not quite sure what that is, but gradually as I write up notes, transcribe interviews, go back to the theory and keep reading and thinking, little parts of that story begin to emerge. It’s almost like it’s there, but just out of reach! There’s also possibly too much, too many different routes I could take through the data, that would confuse the main messages and reduce the main characters to a minor role. So picking out the right story and the right main characters is all part of the trick going forward.

At the moment, there’s a story about influential people and how they operate overtly and covertly to influence policy agendas. There’s obviously a story about the importance of elections in providing opportunities for policy change, where policy priorities are debated and framed before, during and after the election. But more likely there’s a story about personalities, about key influencers and decision-makers, their style and approach, as well as who they talk to and take notice of. There’s also something there about solutions, looking at the same solutions that keep cropping up, year after year, to the same problems, but never quite seem to gain traction, but just maybe they will this time? Add to this the role of party politics and the media in influencing the policy prioritisation process and you can see that there’s a lot to consider.

Whilst it’s a daunting prospect, I’m actually looking forward to the writing process. I love making sense of information, bringing it together in a story that others can read and hopefully enjoy. The process is inevitably frustrating, long and painful at times, but that moment when it comes together, when clarity appears and the story is just right, well that’s totally worth waiting for!

I feel privileged to have been able to take the time out to do this research, to have the support and help of so many people, it’s a far cry from where I thought I would be right now and I’m loving it (mostly). The School for Policy Studies at Bristol University have been outstanding in their support throughout. My two supervisors (Alex Marsh and David Sweeting) are just great, providing the questions, support, encouragement and nudges I need at all the right times. Others in the school have put up with me talking about my research, provided feedback, suggested reading and most importantly of all, provided me with the encouragement that says ‘yes’ I can do this.

So now it’s time to get on with it, to make sure I reach the end of my PhD journey.

Halfway point in an amazing journey

Word Cloud1Well that’s me, I have just reached halfway in my PhD journey. I’ve been doing this for 18 months now, which sometimes seems like forever and at other times seems like I only just got started. But that is it, I am halfway through my 3 year learning adventure, and what an adventure it is turning out to be. I’m sure most people will look at this and think really, at 50 you’re doing a PhD and seeing it as an adventure? But that is how I’ve seen it from the start, a learning adventure where I can develop my own thinking, find out more about an area of interest and just maybe by the end of it all, provide something that might be of use to others. It’s also something I’ve always wanted to do, but if you’d asked me 3 or 4 years ago what I would be doing now, it wouldn’t even have featured. That’s life for you, it has a strange way of providing us with the opportunities to do the things we want, we just have to recognise those opportunities and take those first steps to achieving what we want when we can. For me it’s also been about finding a positive out of a very negative situation, where that positive has now successfully eclipsed any negativity that existed.

I’m now at that stage in my PhD where I’m immersed in fieldwork. Where life has been taken over by a constant round of interviewing, observation, and meetings followed by transcribing, writing up field notes and setting up the next round of interviews. It’s relentless and I seem to have fallen a little behind with the transcribing – it is undoubtedly my least favourite activity at the moment, therefore gets put off all too often when other more interesting things spring to mind (even cleaning the house is preferable).

So far I’ve been pretty lucky with the willingness of people to participate in my research, to give up their time to answer my questions, to invite me into meetings and discussions and to provide me with information. Hopefully this will continue as it all helps to provide a true picture of what is happening and why.

Alongside all this actual data collection, there are of course other activities that need to be maintained. Like keeping up to date with what is being published on relevant areas of theory, that is certainly keeping me busy as various useful articles and books keep appearing. There’s also quite a lot happening in terms of government policy on housing, so I need to keep abreast of those changes too, and the commentary that goes with it. Add to that learning how to use Nvivo (software package for qualitative data analysis), setting up thematic codes and a coding framework, loading information into Nvivo and beginning the long process of coding each and every interview and set of notes, and you’ll see that I’ve been a bit busy lately.

The advantage of getting some training on Nvivo was that not only did it teach me to use the software, but it also meant I had to think through what my data was telling me. I had to really delve into the process of taking on board the themes and issues emerging from my data, relating them to the theoretical framework I had established and drawing both inductive and deductive themes and codes from theory and data to try and make sense of it all. This is a challenging process that I am only really just beginning, but it’s like doing a giant puzzle, where you know many of the pieces are there but you don’t have the picture that they’re suppose to make to work from. So you have to work intuitively, making links and finding relationships that work and help to form a picture that makes sense. But you also have to remember all that knowledge you gained from the theory and the methods you spent the previous 18 months learning about and use that to develop the picture, or the story you are trying to tell. It’s a fascinating process and at the moment I’m not quite sure where my story is leading me or what the final picture will look like. That’s all part of the adventure.

I realise at this point that I have succeeded in writing a post all about my research without actually saying what my research is about. So in brief, I’m looking at how policy gets prioritised, who and what influences the process and what different it makes in terms of what actually gets done. I’m looking specifically at housing policy in Bristol before, during and after the Mayoral election that takes place this May. There’s so much to say about this agenda, about how things change, how decisions are made, where the influence comes from and who holds the power. It’s certainly a fascinating time to be doing research on housing policy and how national changes impact locally and by fascinating I really mean challenging. The situation changes so rapidly as does the response from housing organisations, lobby groups, councils and delivery bodies as they find themselves having to adapt to the latest proposal or policy change from government.

This is currently my world, a whirl of data collection and analysis, an ever changing policy framework, new announcements nationally and locally and extensive media coverage of housing issues. I’m enjoying every moment of it during the here and now, whilst also looking forward and trying to anticipate the final picture and story that I’ll be able to tell.

Housing, devolution and growth – top posts of 2015

IMG_3362Well it is that time of year again isn’t it? Time to sum up what was popular on my blog in 2015. Housing, devolution, growth and a bit about values, sums up the topics of the five most popular posts. These were closely followed by others on housing, devolution, cities and governance, with the odd diversion into PhD world.

So the winner of most popular blog of the year is one I wrote quite recently and that got re-published on a few other blog and news sites too – the invisibility of homelessness. This was a somewhat emotional blog about living in a prosperous city like Bristol, where homelessness is increasing and where more and more people are finding themselves in need of help and support in order to have a decent home to live in. It was also about the plight of ex-servicemen who live on the streets and how we have let them down as a society. The topic obviously struck a cord with many people as the post received twice as many views as the next most popular.

The other top posts were as follows:

  • Time to return to core values – this was a post-election commentary about the Lib Dem and Labour leadership campaigns and the need for a real, grown up political debate about core values and principles. A debate that is as relevant now as it was in July!
  • The devolution debate: what about Bristol? – about the need for a metro mayor and combined authority, and why devolution matters, with growing concerns that the Bristol city region is being left behind. Again, as relevant now, if not more so, as it was in May when I wrote this piece.
  • How to solve the housing crisis – this post was actually about a pre-election debate I went to with parliamentary candidates, where there was common agreement on the housing problem and that things needed to change, but where there was little in the way of innovative or creative solutions on offer. An interesting debate but one that left me feeling less than positive about what might change post-election.
  • Constraints on growth: what’s holding our cities back? – a post based on a report by IPPR and Shelter on growing cities, which identified the main constraints and provided some interesting and practical solutions for overcoming these. My take on the matter was that in the Bristol city region we needed a change of attitude and a growing willingness to embrace change before we could make a difference. Sadly, much of this willingness is still lacking and the constraints that are holding us back are still there, as they have been for many years.

One post that almost made it, and is worthy of a mention (at least in my view) is one I wrote after going to a debate about measuring poverty and living standards. This was about using evidence to support policy and how to attract policy makers attention by telling the right story, with some important lessons from New Zealand. This is no doubt a debate that along with the topics highlighted above will inevitably continue into 2016.

This year is going to be a busy year for me, with PhD fieldwork now in full swing, during a concentrated period leading up to the Bristol Mayoral election in May, so blog posts may be somewhat infrequent. We’ll see, but hopefully I’ll manage a few if you still keep reading them. Thanks for all your views, comments and support throughout 2015, much appreciated.

Doing a PhD – Year 2

Last year I was part of the Bristol Doctoral College, Year in the life of PhD blog, which involved providing one blog per term on what it is like to do a PhD. Whilst I’m not involved again this year, I thought I would carry on the practice of blogging about the PhD process and my progress. So here I am, just beginning the second year of my PhD and it seemed like a good time to reflect on my first year and look ahead to what this year will involve.

My first year started with taught courses and assignment writing, continuing my learning on research methods. These pretty much occupied me full time for 4 months and wasn’t quite how I’d wanted to begin my PhD! However, on reflection, I can certainly see the benefit of having to do them as I have used much of the knowledge gained during that time to help me develop my research further.

After completing (and passing) all the assignments it was onto some theory, well quite a lot of theory actually. In my usual logical, methodical manner I decided to start at the beginning and read my way through a logical sequence. Which basically meant starting with theories of the policy process (of which there are many), moving onto agenda setting theories (lots of those too) and eventually focusing in on Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework. This then took me on to theories about multiple levels of governance, models of governance, power theory, community power and local leadership. Which is quite a lot of theory to get to grips with, but kind of covers most of the issues I think I need to know about or at the very least it provides a good starting point.

Having buried myself in theory for a few months, I then needed to do more work on my research approach and the methods I wanted to use. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do but needed to build this into a coherent approach based on some recognisable ontology and epistemology. This took some serious thinking, as my practice based brain struggled to work through some of the more detailed philosophical arguments about methodology and approach. But I got there in the end, mostly thanks to the grounding in research methodology provided in my MSc course and the additional 3 units I took at the beginning of the year. This together with the work of Rod Rhodes, on interpretive political ethnography, was enough to convince me that I knew where my research would fit and how I should go about it.

My MSc Graduation

My MSc Graduation

Then came the point when I was finally ready to put together my progression review/upgrade documentation. This is a key point for any PhD student, where they are formally assessed to see if what they have done so far and plan to do is good enough to allow them to carry on with a PhD. For me this meant providing a total of 15,000 words on my research approach and on some key elements of theory, together with completing the progression review form. I could easily have written 30-40,000 words at this point, so my main challenge was narrowing it down and deciding what to submit for consideration. The next step was the Panel Review Meeting. I approached this as a great opportunity to discuss my research with some senior academics, who could help advise me on how I might improve what I was proposing and who could challenge and question elements of my research. Whilst potentially daunting, it was a really positive discussion, with two extremely helpful and supportive academics. I learnt a lot about my own understanding of some of the issues and about some of the assumptions I hadn’t realised I was making. I also learnt a little more about positioning my research, defending positively what I was proposing and discussing points of interest.

I came away from my review meeting with a lot of issues and ideas whirling round in my head and even more theory to consider (social practice theory in particular). But I did come  away feeling pretty positive, I’d had a good discussion, received some positive feedback and once I’d submitted a bit of additional information, was told I could continue with my PhD. Good news indeed!

During the year I also submitted my application for ethical approval of my research, another key point in any research project. My research will involve interviewing elite actors, potentially ‘shadowing’ them and using participant observation. It’s a form of interpretive political ethnography, that combines methods to try and understand things from the point of view of the participants of the study. It’s also based on a small case study in Bristol, where I was previously a local councillor and have been involved in various aspects of city life for many years. Thankfully, the response from the ethics committee was extremely quick and efficient, and only asked for a small amount of additional information which I was able to provide without too much extra work. I then receive the approval I needed, which was another key milestone for my PhD. Basically, that now means I am pretty much ready to go out and do my fieldwork.

This next year will mostly be about data collection, interviewing, observation, and document analysis. It’s going to be a busy year and the idea of starting my fieldwork is exciting but also daunting and a little scary. I’ve got a bit of work to do on developing my data collection and analysis strategy, making sure I am fully prepared (or as much as I can be) for my fieldwork, but I’m almost ready to go. This next stage involves not only collecting data but also thinking about how it works with the theory, about identifying the right people to speak to, the right events to attend and the right time to be involved. It means reading more theory, working out themes and issues, coding transcripts and analysing data as I go along. A pretty daunting set of tasks, but something I’m really looking forward to.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next 10-12 months, burying myself in the Bristol Mayoral election process!

What’s popular on the blog?

DSCN0141As I haven’t written much recently on my blog I thought I’d take a look and see what’s been popular over the last few months. I thought it might help me to decide what to write about next and see what people are interested in. So here goes, a bit of a mixture of topics, some older some newer seem to have attracted attention.

The most popular is actually one I wrote up after I gave a talk to some of my fellow PhD students in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. The talk was about using social media as a researcher and was aimed at trying to interest phd researchers in the notion of engaging with a wider audience, connecting outside of academia and entering the world of social media to promote themselves and their research. It was a tough audience as many academics are somewhat sceptical about social media. Not sure how my talk went down, but the blogpost seems to have been well received and remains popular!

The other posts that have hit popularity over the last few months include one I wrote back in May on devolution, a topic that is of course hitting the news again at the moment, and one I wrote in July about constraints on growth, another topic that seems to remain popular. More recent posts have been on the Bristol mayoral election and one on neighbourhood planning, both receiving quite a bit of attention. The full top five list is as follows:

It’s probably about time I wrote another one about housing, but it kind of feels like everything has already been said. It’s such a depressing time to talk about housing policy at the moment, as we slowly but surely watch it all unravel, being systematically destroyed by a government interested only in home ownership, whilst ignoring the very real housing need that exists in many of our cities and towns, which will never be adequately provided for by the private sector.